By Jean Baird | May 27, 2010

When I approach a book, particularly by an author I don’t know or haven’t read, I pay attention to the book jacket. I read the blurbs, and the publisher’s description of the contents.Books found in university libraries have usually been stripped of this information, and thus an element of their personality. A book has lost part of its history when it gets a generic cover. Of course, I know this is done to preserve, etc., but it does mean something is missing.

From Frank Davey: “In the 1975 installment you ask (not rhetorically, I assume) “How can one juror or one jury decide to change the perimeters of the prize? ” One way one juror can manipulate the outcome is by simply being underhanded. In the 1980s Judith Fitzgerald, Barry Callaghan, and I were the poetry jury for the National Magazine Awards. We were asked not to consult with one another, but rather to read each of the roughly 70 poems submitted and independently assign each one a number on a scale from 1 to 100. The NMA staff would tally the numbers and declare a winner. When the results were announced, Judith and I were both puzzled because a poem each of us had rated somewhat low was the winner. So we contacted one another to try to figure out what had happened. That made us even more puzzled, because what we found was (a) that we had both followed the NMA’s’s instructions dutifully, and (b) that we had both given a Robert Kroetsch poem our high score of 100. Judith then contacted the NMA, and was told that Callaghan had given a ranking of zero to every poem except his #1 choice, to which he had given 100. I think the NMA should have disqualified such ‘judging,’ but it either was too surprised to act or didn’t have the nerve.

“I think that both Judith and I assigned numerical values to the poems as if we were grading essays — except that 100 was a possible top mark. So 50 would be a bare pass, 40 pretty dismal, 25 dismal, and 0-10 hopeless. 60 would be mediocre, 70 not bad, 80 good, 90 outstanding etc. So by “relatively low” I meant a C+ or so.”

Thus,  the Kroetsch poem scored 200 from two judges and 0 from the third for a total of 200. The poem that won would get 100 plus maybe 65 from each of the other two for a total of 230. So, one judge is able to nullify the other two.

I’ve heard similar stories from many other writers. On a Canada Council jury one judge gave all the grant nominees she wanted to get awards 10 out or 10, and all the others 1. The nominees she was supporting always got the grant effectively nullifying the other jurors.

What this underlines is the importance of the jury selection. It’s arduous. More often than not, it is unpaid. So, why do people do it?

I’m sure some senior writers do it with some sense of obligation, of paying back to the community. Others might see it as a feather in their cap. And, unfortunately, others take it on to throw their weight around (whether they have weight or not).

My partner, George Bowering, cares deeply about poetry. He keeps up with the journals, follows new publications and because he travels widely with readings and has for years, knows many people in the poetry world. He also taught for nearly 40 years and has been a dogged advocate for Canadian poets and poetry, both in English and French. But sometimes when the GG announces the short-list, and he looks at the list of jury members there are names he doesn’t recognize, names he’s never heard of or seen in print.

Here’s the announcement for the 2009 Booker jury members:

“The judging panel for the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Fiction is announced today, 17 December 2008.  The line-up consists of Lucasta Miller, biographer and critic; Michael Prodger, Literary Editor of The Sunday Telegraph; John Mullan, academic, journalist and broadcaster and Sue Perkins, comedian and broadcaster. James Naughtie, one of the country’s best-known broadcasters, was announced as Chair of the Judges in November.”

Not a single writer in the bunch. Interesting, eh?

I received an email recently from a writer who has been on juries for both national and international prizes. We were musing about the psychology of prize juries and if there is a difference at the national and international level: “International versus national. Yes, very different I believe. At the national level, I’m of the view that the prevailing literary hierarchies are of great importance. The prizes function as a systemic part of the whole literary ordering. This works in tacit and explicit ways. In other words, while some jurors may work the levers without apology, others merely enact and reinforce the hierarchy through their at-times unconscious allegiances and loyalties. You could think of these prizes as a moderated esteem distribution system, the working parts of which (jurors, invited guests) don’t necessarily see the role they are playing.”

Susan Musgrave says the publishing industry is training readers to look for prize stickers. Susan suggests an underground sticker movement. Writers would sneak into bookstores and put stickers on their own books. “WINNER; Writer’s Choice Award.”

1976 Jury:

Walter Allan, literary critic and novelist, also worked in journalism, being at one time literary editor of the New Statesman. Mary Wilson, wife of the prime minister, and not a novel reader—see the note from The Guardian below. Francis King, novelist, short story writer and poet.
The 1976 ShortList

Andre Brink: An Instant in the Wind, W H Allen; R C Hutchinson: Rising, Michael Joseph; Brian Moore: The Doctor’s Wife, Cape; Julian Rathbone: King Fisher Lives, Michael Joseph; David Storey: Saville, Cape; William Trevor: The Children of Dynmouth, Bodley Head

R. C. Hutchinson—Rising VPL

The blurb on the front cover, “R. C. Hutchinson is a born novelist…a real creative writer, and we must cherish him.” J. B.. Priestly. On the back, “R. C. Hutchinson will be read fifty—perhaps a hundred—years hence.” C. S. Lewis. Well, I’ve read lots of Priestly and Lewis but this is my first Hutchinson.

Hutchinson was a best-selling novelist, first book published in 1930. He had a lengthy career in the military and often used his experiences and his travels in his fiction. This novel is set in South America. It’s meandering and arduous, as we slug through complicated family relationships, juggles, and mines.

The writing goes over the top on a regular basis. “When the voice of a hermit finch broke out like a practiced soloist’s from the muted hubbub of the undergrowth he surmised that dawn could not be far away.”

Or, “The mist has been enfeebled by the maturing sun, it hung its flaming curtains which a fresh gust of wind abruptly pushed aside.”

The dust jacket says Hutchinson was writing the final pages on the day of his death, but this novel is clearly unfinished, “Objectless, he turned and wandered back towards where a home of sorts, a wife, a family, had once been constantly awaiting him…” Then a postscript, presumably by Hutchinson’s wife explaining the extensive notes he left for a large final chapter.

These are stock characters, and offensive by today’s standards. No zip. No Borges here. It seems right to assume that this book made the short-list as a tribute to Hutchinson’s career not on its merits. I won’t be searching out his other books. Actually, I didn’t quite finish this one, but then neither did he.

William Trevor—The Children of Dynmouth VPL

Timothy Gedge is the town nuisance, and consciously so. He has huge potential for evil (so do many of the other characters though they are more socially aware to avoid being so obvious). Even the local pastor can’t have any compassion for him. He wrecks havoc in many homes by telling people the truth. Well, sometimes it’s the truth and other times it is what Timothy would like to be the truth.

The novel is better than the other one by Trevor on a previous short list but you could be in the middle of a Victorian novel—but then that is true of many of these books. Sigh. This one really falls apart in the highly romanticized ending where Trevor explains what has happened, and why. It’s sappy and unsatisfactory—and also suggests that the novel hasn’t done its job.

A guest report from George Bowering:

Julian Rathbone,–King Fisher Lives VPL

“Here is why I read this book. Jean and I went to Nuevo Vallarte for a week, and I had thought that three books would get me through, but I finished them before we got to the airport for the trip home. So she gave me Rathbone’s book for the plane. I think that she wanted to see my reaction to it. She said that I could borrow it (though of course she had borrowed it from the library) only if I wrote a report on it.

“What were the books I took with me, you ask. The first was Don’t Touch the Poet, Jersey City, 1998, by Lyman Gilmore. This is a biography of the US poet Joel Oppenheimer, by a faculty member of the small college in New Hampshire to which Oppenheimer had escaped from a life below 14th Street in NYC. The writing is hardly professional or scholarly, being peppered with repetitions and errors. Lyman says, for example, that Margaret Randall left NYC and lived in New Mexico before going to Cuba. It was Mexico City, actually. Still, as a consumer of writing by and about the poets of the Allen anthology of 1960, I enjoyed the details of Oppenheimer’s life. I used to correspond with him back in the day.

“The second book was Strange Pilgrims, Toronto, Knopf, 1992, a group of twelve short stories by Gabriel García Marquez. This is only the third book by the Colombian “magic realist” that I have read. I picked it up for 50 cents at the Vancouver Public Library toss-out sale. The stories are various in length, point-of-view, and a lot of other things, but held together, or so the author hoped, by the fact that each is about a character who has come at some time in the past from the Caribbean to a European place such as Barcelona or Paris. In translation, at least, the stories of García Marquez are highly readable, and you find yourself racing through them. I should have brought a book by Michel Butor. But you know, I have to confess that I ate these stories up, they were so enjoyable. When I had finished the book I left it at the towel shack next to the pool, where some thick paperbacks by pop writers lay untouched. An hour later it was gone.

“The third book was Gary Snyder’s most recent book of talks and essays, Back on the Fire, Berkeley, 2007. Because many of the pieces in the collection were talks given to groups interested in ecology or Japan, there is quite a lot of repetition. For example, about eight times you find out that Snyder is now opposed to the forest service idea that all forest fires have to be fought against. In among the forest/mountain pieces you find stuff about other poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen and Ko Un. I liked these bits the best.

“Jean took six books down with her, I think. But she has to read a lot because she is assembling her famous Booker Report. I know, as I suggested, why she loaned me the Rathbone book. Normally, you have to bribe me to read a novel by an Englishman of the past half-century, unless it is John Berger or B.S. Johnson. But it was either this Rathbone or the Air Transat magazine for four and a half hours.

“Rathbone is, apparently, author of several exotic thrillers of the sort that the Brits have always liked, Mr. Midshipman Easy and all that. Romances in which some Brit of either sex goes to Tangiers or Bangladesh to risk all instead of growing old in stodgy Blighty. There is a chassis of that in this novel, but it looks as if Rathbone wanted to write something that the university crowd would accept without a plain brown wrapper.

“The title character is a American writer who comes to a Brit university as artist in residence, misbehaves in the sixties manner, produces a bare naked version of Timon of Athens, scoops up a local academic novelist’s half-sister, and becomes a naked caveman in a secluded Spanish valley. Along the way, Rathbone makes sure that we get the parallel to Timon as well as Lord of the Flies, and we think also of Heart of Darkness. Along the way we get homosexuality, incest, drugs, alcohol and cannibalism.

“This is apparently Rathbone’s regular fare, but here, as I said, he tries to dress it up with literary theory of the avant-garde, even having it spelled out in the second-to last section, when a Spanish professor in Unamuno country goes on about narrative and reality. One good feature of the book, and the likely reason for Jean’s lending it to me, is the multiplicity of approaches—we get questionable narratives from several sources, plus TV interview transcription, scholarly introductions, letters, journals, notes, lecture.

“So with the unreliability, can we accept what appear to be two problems with Rathbone’s offering? He seems to know little about the academic world: one scholar signs her name as a professor at “Milton University, Indiana,” while we know that she would supply the city, and she claims that her thesis is about the comparison of twentieth-century life and twentieth-century fiction. Oh, please!

“The other problem? Do you remember those British movies in which would appear an “American” character played by an English actor who only thinks that he has to get the accent right? The badly-behaved American writer here seems to this reader to resemble nothing more than a middle-class self-involved Brit trying to appear wild. He also refers to a two-week period as a “fortnight.”

That will teach him not to pack enough books. You’ll love the comments below from The Guardian regarding Mary Wilson and this novel.

Brian Moore-The Doctor’s Wife UBC

Sheila (the doctor’s wife) is married to the demanding and rather boring Kevin and takes off for a second honeymoon, by herself because Kevin doesn’t really want to go and takes a job at the last minute. A stopover in Paris with an old girlfriend allows her to meet the much younger American Tom who will become her passionate lover and ends up going with her to the honeymoon location. Tom wants her to go with him to the US. Kevin shows up to try and convince her to return home to Ireland—his argument technique; he rapes her. In the end she does not go with Tom and does not return home to hubby and her 15-year-son. It’s rather like a romance novel with a sour ending. Although much is often made of Moore’s understanding of women (most cited is Judith Hearne) I found the “understanding” pretty contrived. The novel does capture some of the stress and horror of living in Ulster in the mid-70s.

David Storey-Saville UBC WINNER

I read the first sentence of this hulking, fat novel, “Towards the end of the third decade of the present century a coal haulier’s cart, pulled by a large, dirt-grey horse, came into the narrow streets of the village of Saxton, a small mining community in the low hill-land of south Yorkshire,” and my heart dropped. It’s going to be one of those sweeping stories about the generation that didn’t want to go down the mine and only a matter of time until I’m told the colour of the stripes on the tea towel. Then I check my list and discovered it is the 1976 winner. Egad. Here I go, again.

I made a rule a while ago—I can give up on a short-listed book but I must read the winning books right through. What a dumb rule.

I’m about half way through. The main character Colin Saville is now about 11. I’ve sat with him through vicious attacks from the masters at his school. I’ve sat with him on the hour-long bus ride to school. I know a lot about the kind of food he eats, how big the tarts are, how much milk goes in the tea, but I know practically nothing about what he thinks about any of these things. It’s like an unopinonated omnipotent narrator. In D.H. Lawrence the loins of the characters are in constant turmoil, responding to this and that (speaking of loins, have you watched the YouTube smash hit, Jizzed in My Pants?). This book is almost completely the opposite. So far there is nothing remarkable, nothing that adds to the Victorian tradition to which this book belongs.

Somewhere around page 40 when Colin Saville is born the narrator starts to exclusively refer to Saville’s father as “his father” and to Saville as “he.” Far too often the “his” or “he” seems to refer to the male character just mentioned but actually refers to Saville.

Trudge, trudge, trudge.

Suddenly, or so it seems to me, on page 331, three quarters of the way through, Colin and his friend Stafford start talking about the Big issues in life; what’s it all about? Class issues. Civic rights. What comes after death? None of these issues are explored in much depth, just the wanton musings of young men. A few pages on and Colin is having similar conversations with his girlfriend Margaret but now the discussion includes women’s rights, independence, job equality and social and class responsibility. It’s like a flood after years of draught.

Colin, who we have watched grow up, but know little of what he thinks or feels starts talking. He’s an arrogant, rude jerk. And although we know in painstaking details the story of his growing up it doesn’t make this reader sympathetic.

This is territory that has been gone over again and again. I don’t see that Storey adds anything new. The book is devoid of humour or irony. The ending drags, as does much of the book.

Andre Brink-An Instant in the Wind—purchased abebooks

No library in BC owns a copy of this novel. I purchased it through abebooks.

Adam Mantoor, an escaped slave and Elisabeth Larsson, the abandoned wife of a Swedish traveller, find themselves together in the interior of the Cape of Good Hope. This might be my Literary Fairy Godmother playing me a nasty trick for mentioning that the Storey novel is almost devoid of knowledge of the inner workings of the characters. No so here. Page after page after page of inner turmoil, recollections, terrors, and so on. When Mantoor first sees Elisabeth, he thinks, “And there you’re standing with your shadow against the canvass. You’re not even aware of it, unless you despise me so much that you don’t care?—brushing your hair, moving your shoulders and arms. If you turn I can see the points of your taut nipples. You: the ultimate thou-shalt-not, the most untouchable of all, you: white, woman.”

Yup, it’s a bodice-ripper, and you know it’s just a matter of time, and scenery, until Adam and Elisabeth are lovers.

In 1976 South Africa this may have been a situation of heightened political incorrectness, and apparently the book was banned for a time. Perhaps politics drove the publication, too. It certainly isn’t the writing. It’s overblown and overwritten. “Purple prose” was the phrase I used to mark in the margins of first-year students.

Keep in mind as you read the following passage that the story (apparently based on real people) takes place in 1749. Elisabeth’s husband has wandered off into the bush and hasn’t been seen for days. She is alone and knows the escaped slave (of whom she is supposedly terrified and concerned he will rape her) is not far away. She has just gone for a swim:

“She has no desire to get dressed again; the day is still warm in the late sun. On the flat rock glowing with inner warmth she stretches out, her body pressed against the burning stone, cleansed and glistening wet, strangely moved, and moaning with urgent passion; turning on her back and tense, with knees drawn up, touching herself, caressing herself, opening, moistening, leaving, assuaging the violence of her need, swaying her head from side to side, bringing herself to ecstasy, hearing her own voice crying out, subsiding into silence with a final sob.”

I, too, feel like sobbing. I’m not sure which is worse—Brink’s condescending portrayal of the hormone-driven black man or his condescending portrayal of the libidinous white woman, unfulfilled by her white husband. This stuff would make Daphne du Maurier blush.

There is a sense of time passing, though we’re never sure whether it’s days or weeks or months. They spend several weeks in a village while Elisabeth recovers from a miscarriage. Several more weeks are spent following the river, trying to get to the sea. A raft is lost, all of Elisabeth’s possessions and one of the two oxen they had from the original expedition of Elisabeth’s husband. After some time, at least a couple of months, and 102 pages: “Now I’m sitting here on my own, trying to occupy myself. Today he has gone hunting. He left early in the morning. It is nearly five now and he still hasn’t returned. It’s almost like the day E. E. [those are her husband’s initials] disappeared. I mustn’t think of it, it will drive me mad. If only he returns before dark.”

It’s 1748. She’s in the wild interior of South Africa, has lost all her possessions except her husband’s journals (but that’s another story), and has been soaking wet for a great deal of the time. And there’s my problem. Time. How does she know it’s “nearly five”? Did she check her Rolex? The novel is full of such sloppiness.

“She thought: for all the others I’ve been no more than a woman, a game, a toy. You’re the first to whom I am a person. That is why I dare be a woman to you. And yet there’s something in me I cannot grasp and which I fear.”

The novel is a few notches up from a Harlequin, but only a few.

1976 Francis King-from The Guardian

“There is a vast difference of scale between the prize as I experienced it as a judge and how it is now. Then the prize money was far less generous, and the fee for the judging was an honorarium. There were only three judges: our chairman Walter Allen, an admirable novelist and critic, then confined to a wheelchair, so that I had to read out his presentation speech for him; Mary Wilson, the wife of the prime minister; and me. Despite his failing health, Allen was, unlike me, immensely conscientious in reading every submission from cover to cover. Mary Wilson, a lover of poetry and herself an artless but often touching poet, was at the disadvantage of having read few novels in the course of her life – so that she was clearly puzzled when I referred to one of the submissions as “Kafkaesque”.

“My sister Elizabeth looked through the piles of books awaiting my reading, and eventually held up David Storey’s Saville. With a colleague, John Guest, she had already put in a lot of robust work as one of its two editors. “This will be the winner,” she announced. It was, she explained, an epic about a north country mining community and was therefore exactly what would appeal to Allen, a lifetime socialist, and to the wife of a Labour PM. She was right. I battled for Julian Rathbone’s King Fisher Lives, to no avail. Mary Wilson was obdurate: “I couldn’t be party to giving the prize to a book about cannibalism.”

“For me far and away the best Booker winner in the whole history of the Prize is JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur. The best of all the novels that ought to have won the Prize but failed to do so is Penelope Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Blue Flower.”

It is starting to seem that I should check out The Blue Flower. I guess I will add it as an extra if I ever get to 1995.

Had I been a judge for the 1976 Booker I would have declared No Winner. Maybe even No Short-list.

4096 words May 27, 2010


  • Jean Baird

    Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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